The beginning of the end… at least for some of us

It’s finally come. In the many conferences, trainings, and meetings that Peace Corps Volunteers attend throughout their 27 months, this is the one that no Peace Corps Volunteer believes will actually arrive no matter how much he or she loves her service. It is the Completion of Service conference (otherwise known as COS to our acronym loving community), the one conference that all the other Peace Corps Volunteers secretly wish they were at and always want to know details about.
“So what was it like?” the younger volunteers ask, hushed voices filled with a mix of longing and admiration for the COS-ing volunteers who have actually almost done the thing we all hope we do, but are never sure we actually can… complete our service.
In fact, it doesn’t seem that long ago that the younger volunteer was me—not believing that I had more than a year in Senegal, while my clearly much wiser, cooler, and grungier colleagues went back to America and left me to fend for myself.
Well, now that almost-ready-to-go volunteer is me and the 54 other people I came into this country with, minus a few lost to medical evacuations and early terminations. And let me tell you, it was surreal.
At COS conference this was the first conference where we were spoken to as seasoned, hardened men and women in the field, not a bunch of soft trainees who knew nothing about what we were getting ourselves into. The last time that we had been at the Peace Corps training center together was after we had been in country for 6 months and still fairly new. While I have been able to see many of my group mates throughout my service, and some among those have become dear friends, there were also those people who I hadn’t seen since our last training over a year ago. It was amazing to see the obvious change in some people who I hadn’t seen in so long. My friends are harder to see the change in, but the other people were more obvious, and I wondered if I looked changed to them as well. I found myself thinking, “Wow, she is so much more confident!” or “I can’t believe he is so much more composed!”
It was rewarding to see how much my group mates had changed over the course of these 2 years and I found myself constantly filled with a sense of pride for these people, some of whom I know very well and some I hardly know, all of whom I met in Washington D.C. in late August 2011. It was strangely emotional to share some of our biggest triumphs, biggest failures, and the things we are scared about in returning to the United States, with the people we know have gone through it all at the same time.
I found myself looking around the room and having flashbacks to when I was doing the same thing in Washington D.C., on the first day of meeting these exact same people. That first time around, I remember thinking to myself, I wonder who my friends are? I wonder who the closest people to me will be? Those moments are always very exciting for me because I know inevitably that they will be revealed and that they will change with time.
And as I knew it would happen, those people were revealed which made looking around the room this time a much more emotional ordeal. I saw the faces of those people who I have cried to about the frustrations of living here, laughed with in the strangest of places—on donkey carts, in marketplaces, in hallways, and talked with for hours in sweaty garages as we waited for yet another sept place to fill.
All the nostalgia hit me and I realized the prophecy of what returned Peace Corps volunteers had told us would certainly come true: These people had become friends for life, and there will be no one on earth who understands this experience better than they do.
At COS conference we were bombarded with information about how to re-morph back into socially acceptable social citizens of the United States of America and well-groomed candidates for any job position we might apply for. I drew my own conclusion through all of the pamphlets on available and free therapy sessions and “ways to tell your family and friends about your experience” that returned volunteers must go through some kind of psychological trauma upon returning the homeland. I believe my other compatriots drew similar conclusions, as we all scribbled notes frantically about the key ways to highlight our service on our resume and the unacceptability of wiping our boogers under the table during job interviews.
The only strange thing about our particular COS conference, due in part I think to the fact that we are all agriculture volunteers, is that it was held 4-5 months before we actually leave the country. It is the equivalent of having senior tea or a graduation party in January of your last semester of college. Anyone who has been a senior in college understands it is certainly not the best way to encourage mental endurance during the last stretch, but my group does not have the luxury of being able to “check-out” as we have an entire rainy season to go before we actually leave.
I have finally come to the point in this blog where I need to say something. I have been putting it off by telling you all about the adventure of the COS conference, assuredly luring you into the belief that I am looking forward to my return to the United States just as much as the next COS-ing volunteer. While this is true, it is only partially true.
I will be returning to the United States for the first time after more than 2 years of living in Senegal for the entire month starting with Thanksgiving and ending with Christmas. After that month though, I will be returning to Senegal for a third year of service.
Yes, it’s true. Although it might not be exactly what you think, so let me lay out the details.
If you would have told me last year that I would be extending for a third year, I would have laughed at you and told you to keep dreaming. But as it turns out, the perfect job position came up around February, one that I couldn’t turn down. While I don’t have a specific title, in the broad sense of my work, I will be working to advance the third goal of the Peace Corps which is to help Americans understand the culture and society of the country in which the volunteer is living (aka Senegal).
In a more specific explanation, I will be working closely with the large American ex-patriot community in Dakar in order to help them go beyond the ex-pat bubble they often find themselves stuck in due to many reasons including: fear of the unknown, a lack of tourism which would help them to get to those places beyond the capital city of Dakar, and/or the lack of interest in going beyond Dakar because they have never been convinced otherwise that it would be worth their while.
This is an issue I have felt passionate about early on in my service after meeting ex-patriots in Dakar. I was confused as to why you would want to work abroad without making an effort to understand and discover the country in which you are working in. What good is development work or any work that demands you live in a country if you don’t know anything beyond the walls built to separate the NGO worker in her beautiful American house from the streets and the reality of where she is living and assumedly working to change?
Don’t get me wrong, those houses are beautiful and almost necessary as a way to have a cultural escape, a way to re-unite with the culture you have left behind because of the work you have chosen. But at the same time, it is important to get out on those streets. It is important to know some of the most endangered species of trees in the world are still living in a thriving environment not 4 hours from your house. It is important to know that there is a tribe called the Bassari who perform exquisite coming of age ceremonies in the mountains of Kedougou. There are so many amazing places and people to see in Senegal it would be a shame to miss out on it in the fleeting time that you live here.
So this is what I am staying to do! The coolest part about the job is that I am the first volunteer in the position because it was created by our new country director. I am looking forward to the freedom to be creative, with a completely clean slate on exactly what this job entails. It also gives me the challenge of setting up a strong position that other volunteers can take up after me, evolve on the events and programs I have started, and add new ones of their own. Maybe it comes from being the oldest, but I’ve always loved to forge my own trail.
My work is already started, as I am planning two cultural events (the program which I devised as part of my application), one which will be held at the International School of Dakar and the other at the Embassy. This will prove a challenge since most of the pre-planning will take place when I am still in village, regularly without internet and good cell phone reception, and also because I am still fully immersed in my job as agroforestry volunteer trying to manage 10 different tree nurseries across my area.
I am brimming with plans and ideas for this third year of extension, and while I love the agroforestry work and am grateful that I got to truly live out the romantic version of small village in Africa because of this work, I am excited to start on this new position which is closer to what I really love to do—persuade, coordinate, and in general work closely with bringing people together.
In September, I will be moving out of my village in Sinchurio Samba Foula and moving into my very own apartment in downtown Dakar. Since I am extending for a year, Peace Corps has a mandatory one month paid home leave (Not that they need to tell me twice to visit home). This means I will be home between Thanksgiving and Christmas, before I jet back to Dakar for a New Years on the ocean.
Sorry to all the people who read my blog for the adventure and cultural immersion stories of living in Senegal. I hope you’ll forgive this one blog post which I used to tell the broader group of family and friends that I will be remaining in Senegal for a third year. I will still be in village for another 2 and a half months, so look forward to more stories of village life in the upcoming blogs!

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5 thoughts on “The beginning of the end… at least for some of us

  1. I am so proud of you.

  2. Betsy Rigler

    It’s been great reading your stories, I was in Callaway this past weekend and saw your parents, they are so proud of you. I do look forward to hearing more your last few months.

  3. Roxi Meyer

    I can’t wait to see you and your photo! Thanks for all of the great blogs!

  4. Angela Pitkin

    Whitney, I can relate to the idea of trying to tell people back at home about your adventure. Although Kuwait and Africa are very different, the idea of trying to get people to understand is the same. Words and pictures only describe so much. You look into their eyes and know that they will never understand the way you and the people you were with understand. As adults, I think we are equipped to deal with some of it. The people I worry about are the kids. When I was in China, I heard the term third culture children used to describe my students. It was true. They weren’t American or Chinese. They were Americans living in China and experiencing the Chinese culture. They were the ones I prayed for.

    I am excited for you to start your new position. As an expat, having someone like you in Kuwait would be amazing. I do manage to get out and do things with my friends, but having someone knowledgeable always helps. Good luck.

    • Hey Angela,

      So nice to hear from you! I’d heard that you’ve been teaching abroad. It’s definitely something I’ve thought about and would love to hear about your experiences some time.

      It also must be fascinating to compare your experience in a middle eastern country versus your experience in an Asian country. You’ve probably run into different cultural barriers based on the country you are in.

      Good luck to you as well as you continue teaching. It’s not an easy job.

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